Justice Shah, whose alleged proximity to Modi has been the subject of intense speculation, resisted transfer from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh HC.
New Delhi: Justice M.R. Shah, the Gujarat High Court judge who was sworn in as Chief Justice of the Patna High Court on 12 August, has referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “model and hero”.
Shah’s comments came in response to a question posed to him by a journalist from BBC Hindi, on his alleged proximity to the ruling BJP at the Centre.
“…Modi is a model. He is a hero. This is what is being said about him for the past one month. There are thousands of clippings on social media. The papers are also publishing the same, daily,” Shah said, as reported in the Financial Express.
(Narendra Modi ek model hain. Vah ek hero hain. Jahan tak Modi ki baat hai to pichle ek mahine se yahi chal raha hai. Social Media par ese saikdo clipings hain. Roz paper mein bhi yahi chalata hai).
But Shah’s comments about the prime minister raises several questions of the judiciary’s independence, especially at a time when tension between the two arms of the legislature is running high.
In the interview, Shah recalled his career as a criminal lawyer in Gujarat and how he rose through the ranks to eventually become the chief justice of a high court. He pointed out that his opinion in a judgment pronounced by him was used as the basis in the Protection of Children against Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
Asked about taking charge at a time when sensitive cases pertaining to the safety of women and the PIL about the Bihar TISS social audit are being adjudicated, the new chief justice declined to comment.
Controversy over his transfer
But Shah’s own transfer has been mired in controversy.
There has been intense speculation that Shah’s proximity to prime minister Modi and BJP president Amit Shah meant that his transfer from Gujarat High Court to Madhya Pradesh HC did not take place in 2016, although then Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur had recommended it. At the time, Shah had already been at the Gujarat high court since 2005.
Just as the file on former Uttarakhand chief justice, Justice K.M. Joseph (who was finally elevated as a top court judge recently), oscillated between the Supreme Court Collegium and the Centre, Shah’s name went back and forth as well.
Matters came to a head in August 2016, when Thakur, as head of the Collegium, told then attorney general Mukul Rohatgi that he would withdraw judicial work from Shah if the government did not process his transfer.
Sources indicated that the government had reached out to Thakur many times in order to get the collegium to recall the transfers, but he did not play ball.
Finally, in February 2017, the Centre returned the file on the transfers back to the collegium – headed by (now retired) Chief Justice J.S. Khehar, who now complied.
Instead of reiterating Shah’s transfer, the collegium recalled the recommendation transferring Shah.
Conflict with Bar
In April 2016, when senior advocate Yatin Oza wrote to the former Chief Justice suggesting that Shah’s proximity to the ruling party had allowed his continued tenure in Gujarat, he was slapped with a contempt case.
It’s another matter that the top court later stayed the contempt case against Oza.
Shortly before retiring, Thakur had even directed the government to file a status report giving detailed reasons why Shah’s transfer orders were not being issued.
Recently at a book launch by former Congress law minister Veerappa Moily, Thakur reiterated the need for the independence of the judiciary, for its own survival.
“A judiciary which succumbs to pressure will not be able to protect the Constitution or the rule of law,” Thakur said referring to the recent judicial crisis that has plagued the corridors of the apex court and the executive alike.